So many people talk about company culture. As the leader of a growing business, they’re lining up to tell you “culture’s important”. No shit. Who knew?!

Truth be told, most of the people who bang on about how important culture is, literally don’t know what they’re talking about. But don’t worry, you’ve just found the one blog you have to read to join the select group of people who actually know what they’re talking about. 

Enjoy…

If you’re leading a company that’s looking to scale, you won’t be short of people telling you that culture’s the key to your success.

We’ve all had the schadenfreude of following the stories of the unicorns who’ve come crashing back down to earth. Companies with the brains, the ambition and the funding to change the world; but companies we suspected all along had something rotten in their core. Companies with a toxic culture that everyone was happy to ignore until the numbers started to flatline and then suddenly the whole house of cards came tumbling down.

And as consumers we can all think of start-up brands we once raved about, but who then seemed to sell a bit of their soul for scale. In doing so they made quick money, but they lost the essence of what made them great. Sooner or later they’ll fizzle out and be forgotten or maybe they won’t – but frankly, who cares?!

And we also know the stories of the cultural titans, companies like Netflix, Google, Pixar, Haier, Spotify, Patagonia and Zappos. Companies that created distinctive, innovative cultures that attracted, engaged and retained the best talent in their industry. Living proof that it’s possible to attain the Holy Grail of company culture with happy people, happy customers and happy investors.

So all those people telling you that culture matters – they’re right (in fact read this blog and you’ll probably agree with us that it’s the most important thing to get right), but before you act on anyone’s advice, ask them what do they mean by company culture?

At this point, the people who don’t know what they’re talking about will substitute your question for one they find easier to answer. Instead of telling you what culture is, they’ll give you examples of cultures they admire. Or they’ll give you factors they think are important: they’ll tell you it’s all about leadership; or values; or that it all boils down to ‘what you reward and recognise’ or that recruitment’s the one thing you have to get right. 

All these things may be components of a great culture, but they’re not culture. And following this sort of advice risks building a company that turns out to be really clunky and difficult to work in.

So before you do anything to improve or develop your culture, start with a really clear understanding of what it is.

At The Pioneers we follow a definition of organisational culture taken from Edgar Schein:

The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel and behave in relation to those problems. 

This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values and behavioural norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.

Organizational Culture and Leadership; Edgar Schein (2017)

Let’s try and translate that from business guru to plain English… 

For your business to survive and grow the people who work for you need to learn how to do two things: how to engage successfully with the outside world (users, customers and investors) and how to work together effectively as a team. Overtime norms emerge that define what people need to notice, think feel and do in order to fit in or belong to the company – that’s your culture.

It’s human nature for people to stick with things that appear to work and to look to improve on the things that don’t. So in your company, the more often something works, the more ingrained it becomes as a behaviour or thought pattern. Over time, attitudes, values, mental models or ways of working that may have started as tests or experiments, become the rules or norms that shape people’s decision making and behaviour. Eventually these things become so intuitive and automatic that they become the subconscious, basic assumptions that underpin your company’s sense of unity and identity — what you might think of as the DNA or core of your culture.

Any start-up that has validated that its product has market fit, will have a viable culture. As you look to pivot from start-up mode into rapid growth you’ll already have a set of stories, artefacts, tools, attitudes, behaviours, beliefs, shared assumptions, values, mental models and ways of working that enable your team to work together and to attract new talent, new customers and new investors. This collection of ‘stuff’ is what we mean by culture.

Whether you’ve tried to articulate this culture or not, new joiners will experience a set of standards that establish what they have to notice, think, feel and do in order to fit in and be accepted by the group. These norms are created as the team learns how to work together effectively and how to win customers, users and investors. This is what we mean by your company culture.